What is story?

Think it doesn’t matter? Think its obvious?

Okay, now explain it in one sentence.

Kind of hard. We could name stories. Cinderella. Pinocchio. Great Expectations. Trainspotting.

What is it that makes them the same?

Story is so encompassing that we have a tendency to reduce it down in order to get our heads round it. You have probably heard of the seven basic stories theory .. or was it three? Or was it eight?

Quiller-Couch, he of Kill your darlings fame, boiled it down to a list of universal themes, that regardless of structure, will drive your narrative.

Man vs. Man * Man vs. Nature * Man vs. Himself * Man vs. God * Man vs. Society * Man caught in the Middle * Man & Woman

Nancy Kress eschewed theme for a more straightforward structure-based approach

Sacrifice * Rise and Fall * Transformation * Revenge * Quest * Chase * Romance

I’ll be completely honest, I find none of the above even remotely helpful when it comes to writing. Lets take Cinderella as an example. The simplest of simple little stories. Is this Man vs Man? Cinderella against her stepmother? But surely it is also Man & Woman? Its about love triumphing despite circumstance and contrivance, but then surely that would mean it was also Man vs Society? That an impoverished girl can become a princess requires her to triumph over something larger than the individual.

And if we ignore theme and look at the plotting a la Kress, it is sacrifice – her giving nature is what after all brings her fairy godmother; transformation – from servant to princess; revenge – the stepmother gets her just deserts; romance – the prince with the shoe fetish.

You could argue that some are more applicable than others, after all Cinders never sets out to get revenge. Yet she never sets out to fall in love either, in fact we are a good way through the book before Cinders even meets the Prince. Sacrifice might be the only thing Cinderella actually ‘does’, yet even this is slightly skewered because she does not choose to sacrifice herself for a greater good, but rather endures an evil woman’s whims, for no one’s benefit.

Foster Harris says it all boils down to one thing – conflict. Which you could say was the driving thrust of Quiller-Couch’s argument, he just didn’t think it through far enough. And this has some truth, but again it really doesn’t help us writers when it comes to shaping our books.

What you make your story about – ten themes, two themes – how you plot it – one basic structure, three – a quest for revenge with love woven through resulting in your hero’s sacrifice (you know someone’s written it 🙂 ) – isn’t important. Its anything you want. No one can limit your imagination, but if you fail to understand story, you will fail to write a story. And then we have a problem.

Story is not theme. Story is not plot. It is not romance and it is not revenge. Its not any of these things, because they are ideas and story is not an idea, it is how we explore an idea. An act of revenge is not a story; the why, the how and the effect of the act that is story. Or even the effects of not carrying out the act. After all you can start with a revenge story and end with sacrifice.

It is this completeness of story that seems to trip people up. Its why we use terms like ‘journey’ and ‘arc’, because they imply the very real sense of something with a beginning and an end (and the inevitable middle – that is, I hope inevitable..). They wander aimlessly talking of ‘plumbing man’s depths’.. and no, I don’t know what they mean. Or they string a series of events together, that feels like a compilation of ‘shit happens’ statuses. It isn’t just about action, there must be need; it isn’t jut about consequence, there must also be revelation; for every conclusion there must be a resolution.
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And you can’t have just any beginning, middle and end. Take the example above – beginning with a quest for revenge and ending with sacrifice for love – it could just be a desperate attempt by the author to plot something unexpected. If you fail to resolve the story, your readers will know. If they started one place and somehow ended up somewhere so far off course that even Ryanair would offer you your money back, they’re unlikely to come back.

However, there is no reason it can’t, quite easily, be one cohesive whole, because all the reader is shown is simply the surface, story exists below it. But it is never separate from it. It is the steel struts that hold your story up and give it shape. If you know what your story is, you know where you must go, what drives your characters and the ending, while it may be unexpected, will still satisfy.

Cinderella isn’t a love story. Its Karma. The idea that our deeds will be seen and rewarded. Course if I was writing that story, it would be a little different. But that’s the thing – its not simple. We can boil anything down to a word. Cinderella is Karma. Vincent is Karma. That’s a soundbite not a story. Try again, this time, one sentence to describe your story. By the time you’re done you might have to rewrite, but you’ll have something people will want to read.

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